Long before WandaVision was dreamed up, there was already no denying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a resounding success in almost every way. The franchise of films has redefined the film industry, brought in billions of dollars, launched careers, and maintained a surprisingly strong level of quality throughout its 23-film, 12-year run. The studio that rolled out a relatively small film with a B-grade superhero back in 2008 is now the most powerful player in the film industry and owned by the most powerful company in popular culture. The MCU works, people like it, and they stunningly pulled off a two-part, six-hour crossover epic to round it all out.
Marvel has done this so well because it had a plan built on a successful formula for films that it executes fantastically. It involves films all having the same color palette and visuals, a certain amount of humor injected into each screenplay, and a hero storyline structure that can have nuance but follows most of the same beats. Each movie is ultimately different, yet the same. But “The Formula” is remarkably flexible, able to jump from action/adventure to sci-fi to heist film. It even allows Marvel to tap independent directors to lead its films, and while it doesn’t always work out, the majority of ones that do say that the studio has given them creative freedom — within the Formula. Marvel has had no reason to change the Formula up as audiences routinely rewarded it and the studio make good films within it.
However, in order for the MCU to grow and thrive across multiple platforms as the studio pushes rampantly into television, Marvel needs to do something different because the Formula will only work until it doesn’t — and long-form TV storytelling works a hell of a lot differently than film. If the first three episodes of WandaVision (what the press has been able to see so far) are any indication, Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios, understands this and is showing the world that the studio is not afraid to bust out of the Formula to do something new.
Of course, while Marvel Studios has not done something different outside of the Formula in its films, Marvel is not risk-averse. The foundation of the cinematic universe, Iron Man, was directed by the guy who made Elf and Zathura: A Space Adventure, and it was self-financed during a period of desperation from before Disney had purchased the company. Those risks paid off, and subsequent risks like Guardians of the Galaxy‘s (figuratively and literally) alien cast, Infinity War‘s decision to frame the film around the villain and conclude with everyone dying, and Ant-Man‘s scaling back the MCU’s reach into smaller films all paid off as well.
The difference with WandaVision is that it exists utterly outside the Formula. It’s something new for the MCU. Part of this comes from the freedom that a new medium allows. A TV show has a lot more running time to tell a story, though WandaVision is a bit different than most modern dramatic shows with the first three episodes only running around 30 minutes each. Nonetheless, that extra time allows for a lot more development, and the first two episodes of the series spend more time reveling in the series’s premise of paying homage to classic TV sitcoms than building a storyline. It isn’t until the third episode that the show even remotely begins to expand its concept. You just can’t do that in film, so it’s fair to say that part of this bold direction is allowed by the format itself.
However, WandaVision breaks with the Formula in plenty of other drastic ways. The first three episodes are completely devoid of any action; nearly half of the second episode is taken up by a comedic magic show featuring a “drunk” Vision nearly revealing the couple’s super-powered secret to the quaint town they live in — obviously parodying series like Bewitched or I Dream of Genie. While that does play into the humor aspects of the MCU, the full commitment to the bit is drastically outside the Formula. We spend more time with the characters and the concept than the Formula would ever allow.
The series also ditches the MCU’s same-looking set design and color palette, as the creators commit to the aesthetics of classic sitcom television. Someone tuning in to see something that looks like the Marvel films they’ve enjoyed is going to hit a black-and-white, 4:3 wall of homage, pastiche, and parody. The show is shot like a multi-camera sitcom, not a film, and they even went as far as to ditch CGI effects in favor of the techniques that were used during that era to make dishes float or someone fly. It’s a little disappointing that the series didn’t go all out and ditch HD entirely for the retro-style episodes. It would have been fun to watch something as if it were being broadcast over antenna on an old CRT television — but the look and feel of the entire show is still drastically different from that of the films.
The general tone of WandaVision is different as well. While the MCU has dabbled in the surreal with the likes of Doctor Strange and Ant-Man‘s Quantum Realm, those felt more like spectacular other worlds than the bending of our own reality. WandaVision goes all out, with little hints as to what is going on through its first three episodes, and the ones it does provide almost feel like early episodes of Lost — a beekeeper wandering out of a sewer, strange static radio communications, a recurring symbol. While spots of color like a toy helicopter and blood from a cut almost feel a bit too much, the mystery and oddness of these first three episodes are outside of the Formula’s normal style of setting up a conflict and diving right into it.
The show also isn’t afraid to go dark. A prolonged scene in the first episode features a man choking to death as Wanda and Vision sit there, the victim’s wife simply repeating for him to stop it as she smiles insanely, with Wanda staring directly into the camera, deadpan. The show is also depressing, given the fact that we know Vision is dead, and the heavy insinuation is that Wanda, in her grief, has somehow tried to make the perfect American life out of the sitcom representation of Americana.
Given the current state of the U.S., it rings all the truer how false this facade is, and that kind of downright-depressing take on the world is drastically different for a hero of the MCU. While the MCU has technically verged into darker storylines and characters with its Netflix shows, we know now that those series were never as interconnected as they claimed to be and that Marvel Television was basically operating on its own. Now, with Feige in full control, this kind of psychological tailspin into a character’s depression is a hard veer for the franchise.
There’s also the simple fact that a large section of the audience has probably never seen an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, or The Brady Bunch. Part of the Formula’s power is recognition, and decades-old sitcoms aren’t exactly hot topics these days. These classic shows may have defined a certain generation’s TV viewing and sneaked into a second generation’s minds thanks to Nick at Nite, but for a portion of the audience, the references that the show spends its first three episodes making have no nostalgic connection at all.
What could this all mean for the MCU? It may be nothing. This is, after all, the first of many TV shows, and the films may keep to the Formula while the shows play with change. It’s worked so far, so why change now? If so, let the TV shows be the realm of weirdness and keep those big-budget movies right in the formulaic sweet spot. However, there are signs that Marvel may be shifting its film efforts too.
It’s brought in Sam Raimi for the already strangely titled Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a director whose visual style is uniquely his for a film that could get very odd. It’s also got Eternals from indie film director Chloé Zhao featuring an entire Bollywood number. Of course, all of those could be bend-but-not-break films made within the Formula too. The real hint that something different is in store is the fact that Feige has confirmed that Deadpool 3 will be rated R and part of the MCU. The Formula doesn’t allow for that kind of fourth-wall-breaking bizarreness, and coupled with WandaVision‘s current state, it could signal a new future for the MCU.
Of course, again, we’ve only seen the first three episodes of WandaVision. As the story of WandaVision unfolds, the series could begin to steer closer toward the Formula. The “real” world that seems to be pushing into Wanda’s TV-sitcom dream looks a lot more like the MCU we know and love and is sure to begin playing a bigger part in the series. For those who know the comics, there are already hints of what is to come, and it could all flesh out into more standard fare, steering away from Wanda and Vision as people and back into Scarlet Witch and Vision as heroes. For now, however, we’re being treated to something that is strikingly different, and if WandaVision keeps it up, it could signal Marvel Studios’ desire to continue to experiment outside of the Formula.